Reconciliation – the new safe word

5 Jun 2018

It is each year, during reconciliation week, that we see politicians make public pronouncements about reconciliation, equal partnership and respect in an attempt to out-Mandela each other.

Malcom Turnbull

National Reconciliation Week has just finished.

It’s a week that is becoming more and more dubious in the eyes of many.

The week is bookended by two nationally significant dates, 27 May the date of the successful 1967 Referendum and June 3 when we celebrate the historic High Court decision that overturned the lie that is Terra Nullius, known as the Mabo decision.

Two historic events that have a special place in the hearts and minds of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people everywhere, and deserve to be distinguished in our calendars.

However, what has increasingly crept in over recent years, mainly since the apology, is a general air of malaise. As Luke Pearson alluded to recently, Reconciliation Week is becoming known as the week where Aboriginal workers stop what they’re doing and organise tea and coffee for their non-Aboriginal colleagues, a task many of us will perform in a few weeks for NAIDOC.

It is each year, during reconciliation week, that we see politicians make public pronouncements about reconciliation, equal partnership and respect in an attempt to out-Mandela each other. For instance, this from the man that has flat out rejected the Uluru Statement and mischaracterised it by claiming it calls for a third chamber of Parliament:

“… Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander advancement being led by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is absolutely right,” Mr Turnbull said.

“The great Australian Chris Sarra said very wisely … governments have got to stop doing things to Aboriginal people and start doing things with them and that is my commitment.”


Over the past few years, the Aboriginal community has gifted Australia with two major opportunities to work in true partnership, both rejected by the government. We all know about the Uluru Statement an opportunity for true and real constitutional reform.

Let’s not forget the Redfern Statement, the call for government action from 18 peak Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations and ‘broadly supported’ by 30 plus mainstream peak agencies. Redfern offered a real and practical redesign to the way Aboriginal disadvantage is addressed.

In a ceremony at Parliament House with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders from across the country, Malcolm Turnbull graciously accepted the Redfern Statement, made a speech, went back to his office and then in the spirit of true partnership placed it lovingly on one of his bookshelves. Where it has remained ever since.

Malcolm Turnbull reads a speech after receiving the Redfern Statement.

Reconciliation Week gives leaders and/or grandstanders who ‘broadly support’ the Aboriginal community’s efforts to close the gap, a platform to say big things about reconciliation.

Whether it’s getting their communications teams to quote them in memes worthy of Gandhi or Marilyn Monroe, or whether it’s looking meaningfully during Welcome to Country ceremonies, much of Reconciliation Week has become about noise and optics.

To this effect, reconciliation has indeed become a ‘safe word’ across government and sections of the broader community. It has become the antidote to the kryptonite that contaminates real world issues outside all the window dressing.

Take these stats for instance:

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people still live between 10 to 17 years less on average than the rest of the population.
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people make 3% of the overall population and yet constitute 28% of the Australian prison population.
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged between 10 – 17 are incarecerated at 26 times the rate of non-Indigenous Australians.
  • At least 50% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have a disability or some form of long-term condition.
  • Aboriginal family violence services turn away 30 to 40 percent of women.
  • Indigenous employment has declined from 53.8 per cent in 2008 to 48.4 per cent in 2014-15. The rate for non-Indigenous Australians declined only marginally, from 75 to 74 per cent.
  • The highest age-specific rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicide was among males between 25 and 29 years of age (90.8 deaths per 100,000 population), four times the rate for non-Indigenous males.

The nice words and casual strolls with camera crews to the MCG for the Dreamtime match are so 2012. It’s now 2018, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders have given this great country the road map as to how achieve true reconciliation. It’s now up to all of us to invest in the infrastructure needed to get there.

With the Closing the Gap Refresh quickly approaching it’s more important than ever that principles, objectives and common sense of Uluru and Redfern are adopted to ensure that the mistakes of Close the Gap in its original incarnation are not repeated.

People’s lives are on the line.

So next time you see a meme, hear proclamation of equal partnership, listen to an oration on “with and not to”, retain a healthy scepticism and try and not to feel ill.

Reconciliation has indeed become a safe word for those happy to take the glory a couple of times a year but are not there on the front lines WITH us the rest of the time.

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